The only evidence needed to get someone thrown in solitary is a tattoo, letter, photo or piece of political material.
Ronnie Dewberry is 54 years old. For more than half of his life he has spent 23 hours of every day in an 8-by-10-foot cell, furnished with a concrete bed, stool, and desk that protrude from the concrete walls. There is no window or any source of natural light at all; the perforations on the door allow Dewberry to peer out into a concrete hallway. Dewberry does not speak to or see anyone, save for the three brief moments each day when a guard delivers his meals through a slot in the door.
But his cell is not a quiet place; at night, guards noisily stamp prison mail, rattle their keys and chains, and periodically and purposely wake Dewberry.
A few days a week, for one hour, Dewberry is allowed outside into a slightly larger pen to exercise. It is then that he can catch a view of the sky.
Dewberry is one of more than around 4,000 men who are currently held in solitary confinement in California. Around the country, it is estimated that more than 80,000 people are held in long-term solitary confinement, though no exact number exists. This is one indicator of the lack of oversight under which the practice proceeds.
For most of these years, Dewberry, who now goes by the name Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, has been held at Pelican Bay State Prison, the largest of California’s three supermax facilities, located in the northwest corner of the state in Crescent City. Dewberry was placed in solitary confinement when he was identified by prison authorities as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, a so-called gang founded in California’s San Quentin State Prison in the 1960s by Black Panther member, George Jackson.
If prison authorities at any of California’s 33 prisons determine a prisoner is affiliated with a gang, then that person is “validated” and can be transferred to a supermax prison’s segregated housing units (SHU) for an indefinite period of time.
According to Keramet Reiter, a professor of criminology and law at UC Irvine, prison staff members are required to present three pieces of evidence to support their allegation that a prisoner is affiliated with a gang. The evidence might be a tattoo, a letter, photo or piece of political literature found in a prisoner’s cell, or seeing the prisoner talking to another suspected gang member.
Reiter is the author of the paper, “ Parole, Snitch or Die: California’s Supermax Prisons and Prisoners, 1987-2007,” one of the only attempts to delineate and analyze the character of solitary confinement in California, a difficult feat considering the dearth of information collected by CDCR on the population of isolated prisoners. In order to get around that stumbling block, Reiter analyzed the data of men who have been released from solitary and conducted interviews with the architects of the first supermax prisons in California—a novel strategy to shine light on a subject that remains largely hidden from public scrutiny.
After the first two California prisoner hunger strikes in 2011 and the lawsuit filed on behalf of 10 prisoners at Pelican Bay (including Dewberry) by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus and two private firms in May 2012, the CDCR promised to institute reform. They passed the “Pilot Program for Security Threat Group Identification” in October 2012 and have since maintained this will address the concerns of the CCR’s suit. But absent any external oversight, there is no mechanism to gauge the implementation or the success of the reform.
In a letter sent to CDCR and the management of Pelican Bay in December 2012, prisoners wrote, “The truth is that the Pilot Program fails to change the present policies and practices at issue in any substantive meaningful ways, and it will actually result in a significant expansion of the numbers of prisoners kept indefinitely in SHU and Ad Seg solitary confinement torture cells.”…